Netflix removed all but Ja’ime from its service on Thursday, following a series of top-level meetings in Los Angeles over the weekend to determine an appropriate response to the sustained Black Lives Matter protests around the US in the wake of the death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis on May 25.
Netflix has left Lilley’s series Lunatics, made for the streamer in 2019, on the service, despite accusations it too features a brownface character, the South African dog breeder Jana. The show’s producer Laura Waters said in 2019 that Jana is a white character.
Netflix has also launched a Black Lives Matter index page in the US, while removing Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh from its platform because each features a blackface character.
Stan has similarly removed Little Britain and Come Fly With Me, though at the time of writing The Mighty Boosh was still on the service. (Stan is owned by Nine, the owner of this masthead.) BBC has also removed Little Britain from its platform, iPlayer.
In the US, the newly-launched HBO Max has this week removed Gone With the Wind in response to an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times in which 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley accused the 1939 film of “ignoring the horrors of slavery”, and perpetuating “some of the most painful stereotypes of people of colour”.
HBO Max, part of the WarnerMedia empire, has vowed to reinstate the film to its library when it is able to provide some context around it.
Indigenous writer and performer Nakkiah Lui offered cautious support for moves against content that was, in the current climate, deemed to be especially offensive to people of colour. However, she warned that it could easily get out of hand.
“You don’t want to police other people’s art, because that could so easily be flipped around on you,” she said. “But this isn’t about censorship, it’s about a private company deciding what it wants to put up to reflect its own values. I think they have a right, especially at this time, to decide they don’t want to endorse material that has blackface. They have a right to practice their company values.”
Bestselling author and rapper Briggs was also uncertain that “deleting” offensive material was the best course of action.
“It’s hard to gauge what an appropriate response is in this climate. It feels like everything is pretty heightened,” he said.
“As a comedian I find it funny because I think Lilley’s stuff sucks, but honestly I think there’s more to gain in creating more content rather than deleting old stuff. I feel a better response is to show commitment to Indigenous creators by commissioning content for Netflix that isn’t true crime.”
But while there might be value in contextualising Gone With the Wind, Briggs felt there was little such point to “framing” Lilley’s work.
“I don’t think Chris Lilley is a ‘teachable moment’,” he said. “He made his shows in the 2000s. He’s not a product of the times, he’s a product of his own ego. The fact he re-released that Squashed N—— song in 2013 says a lot about his awareness and his character. It’s not like time has passed and he’s learnt.”
University of Sydney film historian Bruce Isaacs said recontextualising content that the passage of time had made offensive was far preferable to deleting it.
“It’s always more useful than expunging it, which I find terrifying,” he said. “If we expunge negative histories then we assume they don’t exist – and if we assume they don’t exist we no longer have the language or knowledge framework to talk about them.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.